Shakespeare and … Humanism

The relationship between Shakespeare and humanism has always been a vexed one. Depending on the critic, he is the ultimate humanist, the arch-critic of humanism, the perfect product of humanism, or its inventor: as Harold Bloom influentially asserted, Shakespeare “invented the human as we continue to know it.” With equal ease, Shakespeare’s humanism shifts its meaning, from a particular educational program to an all-purpose package of humanitarian humaneness – or a combination of the two in which Renaissance humanism is rooted in a belief in essential human nature, since, as Robin Headlam Wells has claimed, Renaissance humanists, including Shakespeare, “believed that if you want to build a just society you must begin with the facts of human nature.” These problems of definition are nothing new: humanism is the studia humanitatis, but humanitas is linked both to philanthrôpia, a love for mankind, and paideia, education. So when Thomas Cooper came to define “humanitas” in his 1565 Latin-English Dictionary, he wrote “Humanitie: mans nature: gentlenesse: courtesie: gentle behaviour: civilitie: pleasantnesse in maners: doctrine: teaching: liberall knowledge.” “Teaching” and “liberall knowledge” are part of humanitas, then, but must take their place in a wider understanding of the term.

In its educational form, Renaissance humanism was the teaching of the classical auctores to recover the values of classical civilization, with a special emphasis on oratory and eloquence, since speech was what divided man from beast. By the mid-sixteenth century, each grammar school in England followed a variation on an identifiably humanist curriculum, largely Latin, but with some Greek, developed by such northern humanists as Desiderius Erasmus [ed.] of Rotterdam and John Colet, founder of St Paul’s School. Latin grammar and vocabulary were only the beginning of this study: the goal was that students would be able to think, and more importantly to speak, from any viewpoint in any situation, through the close study, translation, and imitation of classical writers. From the records of Eton, Westminster, and other schools, we know that, starting from Cato, Aesop and Terence, the grammar-school boy would in time move onto Cicero, Ovid, Martial, Catullus, Horace, Virgil, and Lucan, as well as various modern collections, selections and redactions. Although the relevant records don’t survive, William Shakespeare is believed to have attended Stratford-upon-Avon’s King’s New School and received such an education. But for centuries after his death his learning was downplayed, as admirers stressed Shakespeare’s “natural” affinity for language and character. They had ammunition in Ben Jonson’s reminder to Shakespeare in the 1623 Folio that he was a great writer “though thou hadst small Latine, and lesse Greeke. But when in 1944 T.W. Baldwin completed his two-volume, 1,500-page tome, naughtily titled Shakspere’s Small Latine & Lesse Greeke, the Jonsonian portrait was convincingly challenged. Shakespeare, Baldwin claimed, was not an uneducated force of nature, but identifiably one of the better products of the grammar school curriculum, even a “learned grammarian.”

One does not need to look far to see the fruits of Shakespeare’s grammar school education. One of his earliest plays, The Comedy of Errors, is based on, but usefully complicates, Plautus’ play Menechmi. His first published work, Venus and Adonis, is a reworking of a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses; its titlepage quotes a line from the same poet’s Amores, establishing the poet’s claim to literature’s higher ground: “Vilia miretur vulgus: mihi flauus Apollo | Pocula Castalia plena ministret aqua,” or as Marlowe put it, “Let base conceited wits admire vilde things, | Faire Phoebus leade me to the Muses springs.” Venus and Adonis was followed into print by Lucrece, drawn from Ovid’s Fasti and Livy’s Roman histories. Titus Andronicus directly refers to Latin lierature: Lavinia and Young Lucius together read “Tully’s Orator” and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (4.1.14, 42); Demetrius finds a Latin quotation, which is recognized by Chiron as ‘a verse in Horace’ (4.2.22), although he read it ‘in the grammar long ago’ (4.2.22-3)—a reference to William Lily’s sixteenth-century school textbook, the Brevissima institutio. Less obviously, like The Comedy of Errors, Titus Andronicus was modelled on a classical play, this time Euripides’ tragedy Hecuba. Shakespeare repeatedly returned to ancient Rome for his subject matter, fuelled by the stories told by Plutarch and Suetonius, in Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and Antony and Cleopatra, and Rome’s special relationship with ancient Britain sparked the telling of Cymbeline.

This is not to say that Shakespeare spent his life reading texts in Greek or Latin: indeed, there is every sign that he read many of his sources in English translation: Thomas North’s 1579 translation of Plutarch’s Lives, for example, and Philemon Holland’s 1606 englishing of Suetonius’s Historie of Twelve Caesars of Rome. But the overt references to classical literature, culture and history are negligible in comparison with the thoroughgoing impact of that Shakespeare’s humanist training had on his practice as a writer. From classical drama, Shakespeare took his plays’ five-act structure; from the exercises of controversiae, he learned how to present multiple viewpoints; and of course from oratorical studies derived his most persuasive rhetoric [ed.], of which the contrasting orations of Brutus and Mark Antony in Julius Caesar are only the most obvious examples. Through rote learning Shakespeare inculcated the grammar school’s habits: as Emrys Jones defines them, “the cultivation of idiom, a skill in varying phrases by saying the same thing in as many different ways as possible, translating from Latin into English and back again – and in the process discovering the finer potentialities of one’s own vernacular” (p. 10). Beyond the classical texts themselves, he developed a deep familiarity with such sixteenth-century textbooks as Erasmus’ De copia, Adagia, and Colloquies [ed,], treasure-houses of images and phrases for early modern readers. Some of Shakespeare’s most memorable lines would have been familiar, in Latin, to his fellow schoolboys from Erasmus’ Adagia: Jones spots Hamlet’s “sea of troubles” in Erasmus’s “mare malorum” (originally from Euripides); Goneril’s “dearer than eyesight” and Othello’s “Make it a darling like your precious eye” from Erasmus’s “Nam oculo nihil carius [for nothing is dearer than eyesight]” (commenting on Euripides); Cleopatra’s “His delights | Were dolphin-like” from Erasmus’ “Delphino lascivior [more lascivious than the dolphin].” As Jones puts it, “without humanism, in short, there could have been no Elizabethan literature: without Erasmus, no Shakespeare.”

And yet humanist education comes in for some criticism in Shakespeare’s work. The pedagogical process is gently mocked with the Welsh parson Sir Hugh Evans testing the Latin of the boy William Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Educated men can be pedantic boors like the curate Nathaniel and the schoolmaster Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Lost. They can use their training to nefarious ends, as in The Taming of the Shrew when Lucentio woos Bianca while ostensibly teaching her lines from Ovid’s Heroides. Hamlet’s student years at Wittenberg – a university led by the leading humanist Philipp Melanchthon – seem to have ruined his capacity for proper action. And learning can lead to disaster: in Henry VI Part Two, Jack Cade’s men accuse Lord Say of corrupting the youth of the realm by building a grammar school and a paper-mill, and associating with people “that usually talk of a noun, and a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear” (4.7.37-9). When Say comments on Kent and its habitant, “Bona terra, mala gens,” the four words seal his fate: “Away with him! away with him!” shouts Cade, “he speaks Latin” (4.7.55)

Perhaps the most extended examination of humanism, its strengths and pitfalls, is to be found in The Tempest. Prospero is a learned man, but he is an ineffective ruler. Rather than putting his learning into action, he gives himself over to “the liberal arts” (1.2.73) handing over “The manage of my state” (1.2.70) to Antonio, abdicating responsibility: “And to my state grew stranger, being transported | And rapt in secret studies” (1.2.75-6). Even on the island, while representing himself to Miranda as “thy schoolmaster” (1.2.172), he is a harsh master, unabashed at calling Ariel and Caliban “slave.” Ultimately, Prospero’s salvation comes through a realization that book-learning alone is not enough: his declaration that “I’ll burn all my books” may be a rejection of all he has read, or it may be his appreciation that he has to move on from his books and put his learning into a new form of action. In Jonathan Bate’s analysis, The Tempest is a “humanist critique of humanism,” a description that might serve to describe Shakespeare’s works as a whole.


Baldwin, T.W. Shakspere’s Small Latine & Lesse Greeke. 2 vols. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1944.

Bate, Jonathan. “The Humanist Tempest,” in Shakespeare: La Tempête: Etudes critiques ed. Claude Peltrault. Besançon: University of Besançon Press, 1993: 5-20.

Curtis, Mark H. “Education and Apprenticeship,” in Shakespeare in his Own Age, Shakespeare Survey 17, ed. Allardyce Nicoll. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964: 53-72.

Jones, Emrys. The Origins of Shakespeare. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.

Pincombe, Mike. Elizabethan Humanism: Literature and Learning in the Later Sixteenth Century. Harlow: Longman, 2001.

Rhodes, Neil. Shakespeare and the Origins of English. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2004.

Wells, Robin Headlam. Shakespeare’s Humanism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

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